Metro is going to get its money, finally. Now it has to deliver.
General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld first asked the District, Maryland and Virginia last April to give the system an extra half-billion dollars a year — and make the arrangement permanent. He said he needed the cash because his trains, buses, tracks and stations were falling apart after more than 40 years of neglect.
Wiedefeld also promised to hold down costs, tighten management and wrest concessions from labor unions. He wanted to assure the public that the agency would not squander the money.
Now, to the surprise of many, the region is within weeks of finalizing Metro’s first-ever dedicated funding package, for the full $500 million.
Although the system has made progress under Wiedefeld in catching up on overdue upgrades and repairs, and improving financial controls, it has a ways to go to show results worthy of the historic investment.
It’s also not clear whether new or recent governance and management reforms will be strong enough to prevent Metro from falling prey to the jurisdictional infighting and lack of accountability that have victimized it in the past.
“Obviously we have a ton of work ahead of us,” Wiedefeld said Friday, a day after Maryland’s leaders confirmed the state would join the other two jurisdictions in committing to the funding accord.
Final action is still required on Metro bills in Annapolis, Richmond and the District, but top officials in all three capitals said the deal seemed firmly in place.
Asked how riders would be affected as a result of the influx of money, Wiedefeld spoke of new rail cars, better lighting and fewer delays caused by poor tracks.
“What they’re really going to see is a better travel experience,” he said, while cautioning that the new funds won’t begin to flow until summer of 2019.
One of the first major projects will be repairing station platforms. Some have buckled or concrete has deteriorated. Some are temporarily supported by 6-by-6 wooden posts. The cost is upward of $300 million.
“It’s not real exciting stuff, but it’s stuff that we’ve delayed and delayed, and can’t delay any longer,” Wiedefeld said.
The platform repairs represent one of about 50 long-term improvements that Metro can plan to accomplish because it is assured of a certain level of funding each year. That’s an advantage already enjoyed by every other major U.S. transit system, but not by Metro until now.
The funding deal “should allow Metro and its board to really plan a long-term capital program, as opposed to thinking in the short term, and that’s a huge change for Metro,” said W. Edward Walter, chairman of the Federal City Council, a business and civic group.
But Walter and others expressed concern that governance changes adopted as part of the funding package did not go far enough.
“This is not the last time we will have a conversation about how to make Metro better,” Walter said.
Both the Federal City Council and a Metro study by former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood called for replacing the 16-member Metro board with a temporary, five-member “reform board” to oversee structural changes.
The current board has drawn criticism for years for being too large and unwieldy, and for factional squabbling.
After much debate and legislative jockeying, only the Virginia funding bill requires a broad structural change in the board. It said that the eight nonvoting or alternate members should not participate or vote in full board meetings.
That would effectively cut the board in half for full board meetings. But the alternates apparently could still participate in committee, where the board does much of its work.
“My big disappointment is that the governance issue is still hanging out there,” LaHood said.
On the other hand, the Virginia bill puts real teeth in a provision to hold down Metro’s operating costs. The state will withhold 35 percent of its $154 million pledge if Metro asks Virginia to increase its annual operating subsidy by more than 3 percent.
Wiedefeld said that constraint was critical to winning support in Richmond for the new funding. In the past, subsidies for Metro have risen by as much as 8 percent in a year.
The stricture dismayed Metro’s largest union, which is concerned that the provision will be used to hold down wages and benefits.
“That 3 percent number is arbitrary and could be problematic,” said David Stephen, spokesman for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689. “Those things shouldn’t be part of a funding bill. Those are issues to be addressed at the bargaining table.”
Since taking over Metro in November 2015, Wiedefeld has sought to curb labor expenses, which account for more than two-thirds of agency expenses. He has made progress in some areas and faced delays in others.
The LaHood study showed that Metro’s overall labor costs are roughly in line with those of comparable transit systems. But some lawmakers were looking for new restraints as a condition of providing funding.
Metro says it saved $3 million in overtime and sick-leave pay in 2017, and reduced long-term leave by 30 percent by tightening up on absenteeism. Under Wiedefeld, it has eliminated about 800 positions, of which a quarter were occupied and three-quarters were vacant.
Wiedefeld also opened up the possibility of employing private contractors for future projects, a prospect that has alarmed the union. ATU Local 689 staged a protest Tuesday against a proposal to outsource operations and maintenance at a new bus garage in Lorton.
But it’s not certain whether Wiedefeld will succeed in reducing pension costs by switching from a defined-benefit plan to a 401(k)-style, defined-contribution plan for future hires. That was one of his principal proposals to save money when he first asked for the extra $500 million a year.
The pension decision rests with an independent arbitration panel, which is expected to rule this summer on terms of a new, long-term labor contract.
There also has been no significant movement on Wiedefeld’s appeal to Congress to amend a 1995 federal law to strengthen management’s hand in such arbitration proceedings.
When he asked for the money 11 months ago, Wiedefeld warned that without it, the system’s safety and service would slide. He said it had already slipped from gold-medal quality to “below bronze.”
To satisfy a region that is set to demonstrate its faith in Metro at considerable cost, the goal will need to be “above silver.”